Investigating the Origins of the S, Again
Eight months ago I tried to unearth the origins of the S. I failed, but people keep offering me theories.
As you might recall, the S was all the rage in high school. Scrawling this sweet baby onto a desk got you through maths and impressed countless friends. This was because as a shape, the S was deeply cool, but also quite mysterious. I discovered this second feature eight months ago when I tried to uncover the origin of the S and couldn't. It's not the Superman symbol. Nor is it an early Stussy emblem—both of which are the two most common theories. So I wrote an article about how indecipherable it all was and moved on.
But the internet did not move on. For eight months people have been offering me theories over Twitter and Facebook. And what's interesting is that I keep hearing the same theories over and over. So here they are. My favourite five theories as curated by the internet.
Theory One: The S Was Invented by a Band Called Sacred Reich
As you can see, all photos were taken by me around the office
The most frequent claim, by far, is that the symbol originated with an Arizona metal band named Sacred Reich. The band has been playing thrash metal since 1985, and once even toured Australia with Sepultura back in 1994. I'm an Australian who was in school in the 90s, so it's possible the band could've brought the S over with them on tour. But when I reached out to the band's bass guitarist, he assured me they didn't invent the S. "I'm pretty sure Suzuki was using it long before our little band," Phil Rind explained. "Our guitar player Jason used to ride motocross and I'll bet he rode a Suzuki. That's where we got it. Anyway, it's nice of those people to think we invented it. But they're wrong."
Theory Two: It's the Suzuki Emblem
This theory was originally suggested by a woman who works at Stussy and appeared in the original article. At the time, I didn't chase it. So let's do that now. Lewis Croft is the Australian marketing manager for Suzuki. I wrote Lewis a long email to which he responded: "The drawing you have sent to me is not an earlier version of the Suzuki logo nor is it our current, official logo. This is the Suzuki logo as it first appeared in 1958."
The image Lewis attached was the same one Suzuki always uses—i.e. the S wasn't some earlier rendering of the now famous logo. Although it should be pointed out that Suzuki is a Japanese company, and I was speaking with their Australian marketing manager, it seemed reasonable that Lewis would know what he's talking about.
Theory Three: It's a Californian Gang Thing
Photo of Richard Valdemar courtesy of Richard Valdemar
Another popular idea is that the S has something to do with gang and/or graffiti culture. Many people seem particularly convinced the S is associated with the Sureños—an affiliation of Mexican gangs connected to the mafia. A lot of people from LA theorised that even if it wasn't the Sureños, it had to be some other gang from Southern California.
So I decided to ask Richard Valdemar: a former detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. For the better part of 33 years, Richard was tasked with combating LA's Gangs, which is why Police Magazine now uses him as an expert on the matter. But according to Richard, the S has nothing to do with any gangs he's seen.
"While the letter appears in gang and tagger graffiti-style, I wouldn't say it's the most common style used by Southern California gangs," he explained. "Usually, Californian Latino gangs almost always use the S followed by the number 13, as in 'S-13.' This is because the 13th letter of the alphabet is M standing for Mexican Mafia. Either that or it's written 'SUR,' which is Spanish for South or for 'Southern United Raza.' The letter S, just standing alone wouldn't represent the Sureños."
That all seemed pretty conclusive, so I asked Richard about his own theory about where the S came from. According to him it was probably just some viral piece of graffiti text, currently attributable to no one. "It's like 'bubble text' and letters formed from arrows," he said. "These lettering styles are just used universally."
Theory Four: It Was Invented By Nikki From Delaware
Nikki is a woman who got in touch via Facebook to explain that she personally invented the S. Although I'm pretty unconvinced she did, it should be said that Nikki is lovely, and definitely not the first person to believe they've invented something. Case in point: me. I once thought I'd pioneered that 2000s trend of wearing belt buckles sideways. Nikki might be mistaken about the S, but I was definitely mistaken about the belt thing. So who am I to judge?
"I started that S drawing in the late 70s and 80s," Nikki explained. "The S was for my tag name Stormer! You can't find its origins because it doesn't belong to any company. I came up with that S with my best friend. Sorry to upset you, but it's not Superman, Stussy, or Suzuki. Just my tag name symbol!"
Theory Five: It's a Form of "Decorated Initial" From Medieval Europe
You know how in old books they often turn the first letters into an illustration? Like if the passage is "once upon a time" the "O" will appear as a piece of medieval graphic design with a castle and a few fauns. These things are called "decorated initials. According to Sonja Drimmer, who is an assistant professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts, the S could be one of these.
"Recently I decided I should learn how to use a quill," explained Sonja. "So I've started making my own quills from turkey feathers and writing with quill ink. At the same time I read your article, and decided to try writing an S and discovered it's really hard to draw with a quill." Sonja described that the problem is that drawing an "S" requires pushing a quill in two different directions, which creates two opposing "C" shapes instead of a single flowing line. But this problem can be overcome if you produce the "S" with a lot of vertical strokes.
"So it's only a theory," she said, "but maybe they started doing these elaborate, embellished angular S shapes to compensate for the quill problem." Sonja went on to say that she's seen S-shaped decorated initials throughout texts going back to eighth century England, although there's no definitive evidence to say this is where they originally came from.
So here we are, in article number two, and not much further on. The only thing we can really say is what we said at the start: The S is fucking way cool, and mysterious.